As I stated in my review of Yellowstone last year, national parks are wonderful places to combine history education with outdoor activities. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, many families are not able to travel to the best known national parks this year. However, right now is the best time to begin planning for summer 2021. Many of the hotels, restaurants, and activities sell out 9-12 months in advance so you will want to start planning your dream trip today!
A good companion to a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Yellowstone is the Grand Teton National Park. Located just south of Yellowstone, Grand Teton is dramatically different, with craggy peaks still dusted with snow in summer. Much smaller than its northern neighbor, Grand Teton is an easy place to spend a few days in the same hotel, taking advantage of the activities and natural beauty.
The history of the area dates back to the very beginnings of our country, when a former member of the famed Lewis and Clark expedition, John Colter, explored here. Fur trappers and traders spent the early 1800s in the area, and the area slowly started seeing an increased number of homesteaders in the late 1800s, including settlers who built the picturesque Mormon Row in the park. In the early 1900s, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. began buying up land in the area and donated it to the Federal Government for preservation. Yellowstone became the first national park in 1872 but Grand Teton wasn’t declared a national park until 1950. You can explore the history of the area in a great little museum in Jackson Hole.
Grand Teton National Park benefits from being near a town, Jackson, where you can easily stay and venture into the park every day.
I don’t recommend visiting Grand Teton from a home base in Yellowstone as the drive will consume much of the day, depending on where you are staying in Yellowstone. For our trip in 2019, we spent 3 nights in Yellowstone and then drove to Grand Teton for just 1 night in the park. We then spent several additional nights in Jackson Hole, which was the perfect amount of time for our family. Depending on your family’s interests and tolerance for outdoor activities, you could stay longer in each place.
Getting to Grand Teton is much easier than getting to Yellowstone. You can easily fly in and out of the Jackson Hole Airport. While not economical, it is very close to both the park and Jackson Hole. Alternatively, you can fly into Salt Lake City (5 hour drive) or into Bozeman, MT (best option if you’re visiting Yellowstone first).
The areas of Grand Teton National Park are not as diverse as in Yellowstone so you can choose a hotel that is more to your taste rather than worry about its location. We stayed at the beautiful Jackson Lake Lodge with its breathtaking lobby. Both Jackson Lake and Jenny Lake areas are central to the rest of the park.
As with Yellowstone, there is a central organization that handles all hotel, dining, and activities reservations in the park, the Grand Teton Lodge Company. Of course, there are many companies that host activities in the park outside of this main company but if you want to stay or dine in the park, you have to go through GTLC. For lodging in Jackson Hole, check out the Visit Jackson Hole website.
While the main activities in Yellowstone are walking on boardwalks through geysers and hot springs and observing wildlife, Grand Teton is for outdoor enthusiasts who like to hike, kayak, and bike.
There are trails for people of varying conditions, from short, flat walks around lakes to high-level hiking in mountainous terrain. Check out the NPS guide here and call your hotel concierge with any specific questions. Many of the guidebooks that I recommend below have suggestions on trails as well. For families, I do recommend a guided hike to help you plan an appropriate, family-friendly route.
Our family did the hike to Inspiration Point (well at least 3 of the 4 of us made it!). This is a great little hike for families because it incorporates a boat ride across the beautiful Jenny Lake. You can easily park at the Jenny Lake Visitor Center and walk to the boat ramp. While we were waiting on the boat ramp, a mama bear and two cubs ambled along the riverbank, up onto the sidewalk where we had just walked, and began to come on the dock! Thankfully park rangers swarmed her and shooed her away! Just be aware that wildlife can be anywhere – even a crowded dock!
Once you take the boat across the lake, it is a pretty hike up to Inspiration Point. If, like me, you want the shortest hike imaginable or if you have young children who might not be able to handle the steep climb, you can hike part of the way up and then split off to head back to the dock. The rest of the half-mile hike up to Inspiration Point is pretty steep but worth the view at the top!
You can take the boat back to the visitor center (you can see the boat in the picture above) or hike a flat trail around the lake. Either way, be on the lookout for wildlife!
Grand Teton has several lakes and the Snake River, which makes it an excellent place for water activities. From kayaking to rafting to fishing, everyone can participate!
We did a fantastic family-friendly guided rafting tour down the Snake River. On the route, we saw bald eagles, bison, and had some of the most spectacular views!
It truly was something that our kids will never forget.
Another fun activity, particularly for younger kids, is the scenic lake cruises. Also don’t miss a chance to fish in either the lakes or the famous Snake River. Check out all of the guided water activities through GTLC and all of the water options here.
While mountainous terrain doesn’t seem like the most logical choice for a family bike ride, there is a relatively flat section of road in the southern part of the park that is perfect for kids and adults.
While staying in Jackson, we booked a guided bike tour that took us from just north of Jackson’s downtown square to an ice cream shop in the national park. While a bit challenging for our then 10-year old, he made it all 20 miles – the youngest ever to finish!
Teton Village also has a mountain bike course that is fun for kids and adults alike!
The easy 5-mile drive up Signal Mountain can give you the amazing view of the mountains and valley without the hike! This is a perfect activity for families but be sure to hold tight to little ones’ hands at the overlook. Also be on the lookout for wildlife, including bear and elk, here!
We saw an elk as we drove up the mountain!
While most people want to take part in the activities in the park, there are also several historical sites of interest. The most well-known site is Mormon Row, where intrepid homesteaders eked out a living in the late 1800s. The weathered barns and whispering fields are all that are left of their existence. Mormon Row is off of the main road, along a dirt road. If you aren’t driving a four-wheel drive SUV, I recommend seeing the first barn, right off of the main road, and turning around. You can drive down the dirt road for a couple of miles to get a sense of the vastness of the land but it isn’t absolutely necessary.
Another historic area is the Menors Ferry Historic District, which includes an inspiring chapel and a working ferry!
Several of the visitor centers in the park have exhibits and displays about the history of the terrain, wildlife, and people who have called this land home. We stopped at the Colter Bay Visitor Center and at the Jenny Lake Visitor Center so our son could get the important stamps in his ranger booklet. Your kids can also become a Junior Ranger!
While traveling to Grand Teton National Park may be off limits this summer unless you live within driving distance, it is a great time to plan a big trip for 2021. I am hopeful that next summer, we will be back to traveling and Grand Teton National Park should be on your must-see list!
- Cost: $35/car (good for 7 days); free with Every Kid in a Park pass
- Recommended: all ages
- Tour: 2-3 days
- Gift shops located at all hotels, visitor centers, and in the town of Jackson
- Transportation: Grand Teton is best seen by car. Be sure to download the Gypsy app to make it an educational and more enjoyable drive. GTLC does provide a guest shuttle within the park and Jackson.
- Dining options: Each village and hotel has several dining options. Make your reservations well in advance here. Each restaurant differs in its menus, using seasonal and local ingredients. We ate at the delicious Leek’s Pizzeria at the Marina and at the disappointing outdoor western BBQ at Jackson Lake Lodge. I wish we had ate on the patio at the Lodge’s Blue Heron Lounge. The scenery is amazing! You are also close enough to Jackson to take advantage of its many restaurants and dining options. See my Jackson Hole review for more details.
- Nearby hotels: The Grand Teton hotel options are all accessed through the GTLC website. Remember that all hotels are rustic with no TV or WiFi. If you don’t want to stay in the park or if you want those amenities, Jackson is a great option.
- Nearby attractions: Yellowstone National Park, Jackson Hole, National Museum of Wildlife Art (worth a drive through the parking lot to see the sculptures!), Jackson Hole resort activities (from skiing to hiking to a rodeo!), and the Jackson Hole Children’s Museum
Books to Read:
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- 6 and up: